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When browsing on the internet, we often see banner messages about “cookies”. But what are they? When you are viewing a website, cookies are small files that are sent and stored by your web browser on your PC, for example Google Chrome or Internet Explorer. These files, called “cookies”, contain data about your browsing history, so when you return back to the website, it can remember what you did on the website last time.

Cookies were invented to make it easier to get information about users’ browsing history when they return to a website. An example of this usage is when you view a website and put items into the shopping cart but do not pay for these items. When you return to the website at a later time, the cookies will be used to retrieve the information about the items you had in your cart and the website will try to display products based on that data. If cookies were not used, how would websites remember what you did before? If websites didn’t use cookies, there would need to be a huge server storing everybody’s browsing history which would be very inefficient and expensive to run. This is because there would be a lot more files to search through before identifying your history. So the solution of putting your history on your own computer makes it much quicker for the website to gather the information related to your personal browsing.

Cookies are extensively used for direct advertising too. Websites that put a cookie on your computer are able to track your browsing history. For example, if you view clothing products online, this information is stored in a cookie file. The website that put the cookie on your computer would now have access to your history and they’ll know you are interested in products like this. The next time you visit the website it may give you recommendations to products that are similar or related to your past searches in the hope that you will be interested and buy it. That’s why when you look at something on Amazon, on your next visit Amazon displays the related products right on their  front page, just for you.

The fact that cookies, in a sense, track what you are doing on the internet has caused concern for many people. Some feel that it takes away their privacy because websites can know what you are looking at online. Because of this the EU brought a new law in 2011. This law requires websites to ask permission from users who go on their website to allow the use of cookies to track their browsing history. The pop-up message that we see on some websites is the website asking you if it is allowed to send you a tracking cookie to collect your history. This is so it can update web pages you view, and advertise products for you personally depending on your previous browsing history.

Cookies are not considered dangerous or harmful to you or your computer. They are a way for websites to gather information to give visitors personal experience. However some do prefer to disable and delete cookies because they either do not feel they need or do not want their personal information shared and tracked.

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